Patriotism - an unrequited love

Muslims’ and Jews’ loyalty to their native lands needs to be more widely acknowledged

By David Aberbach, June 25, 2009

A recent Gallup and Coexist Foundation poll shows that most British Muslims are patriotic and loyal to Britain, and respectful of its institutions, to a far greater degree than the general population, whose members wrongly tend to associate them with fanaticism and terror.

To Jews, despite high levels of patriotism, this problem of image is all too familiar. Christian Europe assumed that the “perfidious murderers of the Saviour” could not be patriots. The post-1789 secular states offered the Jews emancipation but expected them to adopt a patriotism that abandoned their primary loyalty to fellow Jews and to Judaism.

In fact, many Jews, especially in Western and Central Europe, needed neither carrot nor stick to be patriotic. Emancipation miraculously freed them, in theory at least, from centuries of hatred and persecution and gave them unprecedented rights and opportunities. For many increasingly assimilated Jews, Berlin, London or Paris was the new Jerusalem.

Jewish communal organisations throughout Europe were invariably patriotic and often wary of involvement with Jews in trouble elsewhere. The Anglo-Jewish leadership’s patriotism became pronounced under Queen Victoria and has remained a defining characteristic to the present. In the early 20th century, and particularly in the 1930s, when large numbers of foreign Jews sought refuge in England, this patriotism inhibited aid efforts.

In contrast with today’s Muslim patriotism, European Jewish patriotism was kindled by war. In all European wars from the time of Napoleon to the Hitler era, Jews volunteered for the front-line, eager to fight and die for their countries — even when the enemy included other Jews. In the First World War, Martin Gilbert writes, “German Jews fought and died as German patriots, shooting at British Jews who served and fell as British patriots.” On a much larger scale, the Jews of Austria-Hungary and the Jews of Russia fought and killed each other while serving their respective fatherlands. Even Zionists split along nationalist lines.

Remarkably, the blood-bond established by patriotic Jews in battle generally did not lead to greater social integration and understanding among their colleagues. Hitler fought for four years alongside German Jews, who included some of the bravest and most decorated patriots, yet he emerged from the war a pathological antisemite.

By this time, the German Jews were irretrievably patriotic. Some believed Jews should be loyal even to Nazi Germany. In January 1935, the JC reported the Berlin Jewish lawyer Max Naumann saying: “Hitler is our future. No one but he can solve the Jewish question.”

Political Zionism grew from the recognition that Jewish loyalty to countries that hated them was a form of sickness. Theodor Herzl wrote in the JC (January 17 1896) after the Dreyfus trial: “In vain are we loyal patriots…”

In Arab countries, too, Jews turned to Zionism after being rejected as patriots. Robert Wistrich, in The Longest Hatred, cites the Tunisian Jewish writer, Albert Memmi, driven, along with his Jewish contemporaries, by antisemitism from Arab nationalism to Zionism: “We should have liked to be Arab Jews. If we abandoned the idea, it is because over the centuries the Muslim Arabs systematically prevented its realisation by their contempt and cruelty.”

The patriotism of British Muslims makes them a potential bridge between the West and Islamic countries. Yet, if the Jewish experience is anything to go by, they might still be targets of suspicion and hatred, and widely perceived as a bridgehead of radical Islam.

In Britain, a democratic country with an exceptional history of tolerance and a free press, much work evidently remains to overcome unacceptable prejudice against the Muslim minority.

And, in the Middle East, if peace is to become a reality, Muslim countries will face an even more daunting struggle to overcome their long history of anti-Jewish (and anti-Christian) discrimination, violence and expulsions; unrestricted antisemitic prejudice in education, literature, public life and the media; and such public hatred against Jews as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and demonisation of the state of Israel.

David Aberbach is Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Studies, McGill University, Montreal, and is at present on sabbatical as Senior Research Fellow, UCL and the LSE

Last updated: 1:08pm, June 25 2009